Recount: A Magazine of Contemporary Politics

The Past Tries to Stay Alive in the Trendiness of Soho

By Dana Lerner | Mar 2, 2005 Print

The building that houses Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar would be historic anywhere, but in Soho, Manhattan - where high-end chain stores, art galleries and luxury real estate embraces modern architecture’s high-rise and urbanism- it is particularly so.

Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar resides on the corner of West Broadway and Broome, nestled between an apartment complex and a café called The Cupping Room. The windows of the bar stretch from the ceiling to the floor and look out onto the bustling traffic leading to the Holland Tunnel. Across the way are two well-known clothing stores and an upscale salon. Outside the bar’s front door is a green sign from which protrudes a gold lion. Beneath it reads the date 1972, but the structure itself dates back to 1825. The four-story brick building, with black shudders and maroon trim is uniquely identified by its 19th century architecture-- an A-shaped roof with a cast iron facade. A colored chalkboard the length of the front door lists the soup of the day and the restaurant menu. Passersby stop to look at the menu’s selection and most if not all come through the bar’s door.

Broome Street Bar is an escape from the homogeny of Soho. It exudes such old-world charm, among the high-end shops and galleries, studios and salons that typify the streets. Soho is one of the largest remaining cast iron districts in the world and Broome Street Bar, pronounced so defiantly on the corner, is a contribution to that status. In its very continuation is a hope that the past can live on with the present.

Inside, the bar is long and narrow, 9-by-42 feet, with unfinished floors. Fans hang from the ceiling on low and large bay windows let in daylight. The bar is dimly lit, regardless of the time of day. At the foot of the bar, both on the left and right, reads an engraving that says “Last Man’s Chance.” Above the inscription is the face of a lion bearing its teeth, claiming its stake. “It’s one of the few pubs left that hasn’t changed,” said Elizabeth Connelly who’s been part of the management for 22 years. “The only thing that’s changed is we added french fries to the menu, and some of us have grown a bit older.” Chalkboards along the exterior wall and around the front and back interior invite artists to a free exhibition of their works. “I wanted it to be free and easy so the artists could have fun and do their works,” said owner Kenn Reisdorff while pointing to a chalkboard. Collages of photographs dating back to the early seventies capture a sense of art, both its presence and absence.

The restaurant and bar area is somewhat dark and intimate, on a Wednesday night, with a cozy feeling that welcomes customers to come “stag” or with some company. During the day, Broome Street Bar has a calmness about it, in its pace and activity, which some customers call an “old world atmosphere” both in its rustic and simplistic style.  But at night, it really picks up.

“Medium rare,” said one waitress to the kitchen staff. Three men in black suits file through the door and gait up to the bar, taking the remaining seats. They’re laughing and chatting so loud that it makes one couple, seated at a nearby table, look up and smile. People are drinking, and drinking fast-- rum cider, mixed drinks and draft beers, mainly. Dollars are lined up across the bar to tip the bartender, Kevin Ryan, who’s delivering drinks and maintaining friendly conversations with his customers. It will be his 12th year at Broome Street Bar in April. “What are you having?” he asks the business men, who are seated next to two men in dusty work boots. Before Ryan gets their answer, he hears an order for beer called out. It’s coming from the bar door -a group of people off from work, wanting a couple rounds. They push two tables together and take their seats on the dark wooden chairs. “It’s more of a transit kind of place. People are always coming in and out,” said Ryan, while filling some glasses. It doesn’t look like he will get a break tonight.

The historic nature of Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar has not gone unnoticed. It is a national historic landmark, because of the distinct architectural character of the building on a street that has evolved from farmlands in the 1800s, to the urban metropolitan of the 21st century. “It is possibly the oldest remaining structure in Soho,” said Reisdorff, “it goes back.” The building’s first floor was primarily used for storage while its upper floors were used for businesses. It was originally owned by Alfred S. Pell. Throughout the years, the building was witness to manufacturing activity, economic development and diversity and the artists’ occupation.

Reisdorff, 83, first opened the bar in 1972 to entertain his artist friends. Now, artists have seemingly fled this part of the city. The bar’s seats are filled with working-class of Soho, professionals and blue-collar, as well as tourists and non-artists. Today, Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar is known for its wide-range of beers and burgers served in a pita, its friendly staff and its non-pretentious atmosphere, but it wasn’t always Bob and Kenn’s bar.

The mystique of the building remains in the mind of Reisdorff. He has not forgotten the variety of purposes the establishment has served. “It has been solely under my ownership for the past 20 years,” said Reisdorff. His brother, Bob, decided to forgo his share of the business, but his name still remains on the black and gold sign on the outside of the bar. Kenn’s reasoning is that he “was part of the history.”

According to Reisdorff, the building used to be a “sleaze joint,” or a house of prostitution, in the early 40s. The windows in the back of the bar were covered and blocked off so that women could perform sex acts. Reisdorff described the women as having puffed-out hair, high heels and wearing little clothing as they walked past the windows to “market” themselves to customers. In the early days, the building was also used as an inn with rooms upstairs for nightly rentals. By the mid-1850s, the building was converted into a saloon with an adjoining dining room and it has remained a bar and restaurant ever since. Reisdorff believed the establishment to be a German restaurant in the 1920s and an Italian restaurant called The 7 Wagner Bar until he took ownership. He declined to give the name of the owner before him, because he “was not a good man” and shot and killed a customer who was sleeping with his girlfriend. However, he was not alive long after the shooting. The brother of the deceased customer gunned down the owner right outside his bar in the late sixties. After the owner was killed, the business went bankrupt.

On one Saturday afternoon, the bar is serving a lunch crowd of couples. The majority of people are seated at the front section of the bar, in tables just large enough to fit two plates across. Two tourists hold up their cameras, motioning to the waitress to take their photograph. They are seated by a window framing a full street of Soho shoppers and art gallery visitors. Out from the kitchen comes a waiter with three plates, two with burgers and one with steaming hot French fries. The customers dig in. The texture of the burger begins with the crunch of an onion, the ripe flavor of tomato and the burger’s thick, moist and meaty center, all cushioned between flour-dusted white bread pita. The burgers are juicy and grilled to tender perfection. Customers remark that they are of good quality meat and seasoned well. The fries come unsalted and are crispy on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside. A half hour later, their plates are empty.

When the Reisdorff brothers opened Broome Street Bar, Soho was a place where the manufacturing industry had decayed and the artistic community began to colonize. Artists took over old buildings that used to be factories and sweat shops, renting them for little money and illegally, due to official zoning laws which prohibited the residential use of these buildings. In the mid-1970s, New York Mayor John Lindsey made it legal for the artists to not only work but reside in Soho and hundreds of lofts constructed for manufacturing purposes became the home to young and emerging artists. The works of iron sculpture artist, Robert Bolles, the poetry of Jack Micheline, the chalk drawings of Japanese artist Mako Danaka, Peter Herring and Bob Cenedella, are displayed on the walls of Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar as a living tribute to the artists. “I opened up for the artist community, and lived here long before the Soho we know. My customers were all kinds of artists, from sculptors and painters, to what I call pretenders,” said Reisdorff as he sipped a glass of white wine on the rocks.

Reisdorff said that when he started to rent the building, “it was at the right place, at the right time.” He’s concerned about the soaring prices of Soho, and rightfully so since Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar just had a rent increase. One of the managers explained the real estate of the neighborhood. “I think the building across the way is a three-floor rent for $30,000 a month,” said Connelly. “Starving artists can no longer live in Soho. They just can’t afford it.” Angelo Romero, a manager of Kenn’s Broome Street Bar for 19 years, recalls the evolving nature of Soho, which he’s observed since the 80s. “The yellow restaurant over there used to be a T-shirt place,” he said with his arm extended toward West Broadway, “Tommy Hilfiger used to be just an empty, old parking lot. Newspapers were sold at the corner of West Broadway and Broome in the mornings and scattered on the streets by the evening and the store on the opposite corner used to sell live chickens. They would cut their heads off right after you’d buy them.” According to Romero, Kenn’s Broome Street Bar was the first place on the corner of the 43 block district that makes up Soho.

In Kenn’s Broome Street Bar, the customer’s sitting at the bar face a stained glass picture that is centered and backdrops the middle section. Pinks, purples, browns and yellows surround the face of a boy in a brown hat with a white feather. The restaurant area seats 60 people, and the bar area has 12 stools. “People come in, get drunk, dance a little, and have a good time,” said Romero. “There are more young people now than when we started. It’s a popular place among the Brazilians, the Japanese, the Sicilians, everybody.”

There are 15 kinds of beer and eight draft beers. The most usual beers are the Harpoon Winter Warm, from Boston, the Dog Fish and the Flying Dog Pale Ale. The draft that sells the best is Stella. The liquor license costs them $4,352 this year. If the customers want more than a drink, the menu items, interesting to the palate, include homemade chili, hot pastrami on rye, pigwich, liverwurst sandwich, a watercress salad and some may even prefer the sardines, cream cheese, watercress and red onion sandwich on pumpernickel bread. Prices range from $7.25 to $9.50. The most requested item is the ½ pound burger, which can be ordered with blue cheese, Jarlsberg, swiss or cheddar and bacon, which makes it complete.

The kitchen is open to the restaurant’s view. The cooks - Louis Flores, 32, has been there for 14 years, Juanito, 69, has been there for 21 years, and young Juan, who has been there for 16 years - throw raw meat on the grill, and turn strips of bacon in oil that sizzles and pops. They make $11.25 an hour and work eight hour shifts. The kitchen is small, so the cooks work in close proximity. The cooking staff wears black caps with small pink writing saying “Broome Street Bar.”

Around the bar and restaurant area, the customers are eating salads, thick sandwiches, burgers and are drinking wine or pints of beer. It is relatively quiet except for a few murmurs and some soft music from the stereo. The jukebox at the end of the bar is trimmed in a neon green light, and is off for the moment. A small television is tuned into ESPN.

The customers gather at the bar, some alone, others with company, and it’s 5 o’clock early Monday evening. Murphy pours Jagermeister, a hard liquor, into three shot glasses. Three gentlemen take it down without a chaser. One of them, Victor Henken, a Reuter’s financial analyst and a Broome Street Bar regular, begins explaining to Murphy the economics of living south of Houston. “Soho is the most expensive place in the city to live per square foot. Every investment banker or developer in the area wants to move here, and they’re charging about $1,300 per square foot,” said Henken who is presently looking for commercial space in Soho. Murphy asks him if he always comes to talk business. “No,” Hecken said, “I come for the beer and burgers.”

Dave Johnson, a carpenter from Ireland, has been coming to Broome Street Bar since he moved to Manhattan. “I love the bar staff, the good location, the great atmosphere. I’m usually here on Tuesdays, my day off. It’s very crowded, you know. This place seems to always be busy.”

Penny and Dave Mercer are from England and are staying at the Soho Grand, so they came over for cocktails. Andy Spenser, a Soho resident and electrician, said, “This is one of the few pubs left that hasn’t changed. I feel very comfortable here.” The bar has some people who frequent two to three times a week. “I like it here because I can maintain a level of privacy,” said Eleanor Kauffman, a regular, as she is handed a complimentary glass of red wine. “It’s a safe place, a comfortable place. They have great hamburgers, did you try one? Oh, and the whole staff are just such pleasant people.”

Broome Street Bar has the appearance of a historic design emphasized in its distinction from contemporary architecture and untouched by the changes of modernism and the cosmopolitan life of Soho. On the corner lies a structure that once was witness to a factory district, an artistic haven and now a commercially-active fast-paced New York market. The bar, preserved intact with picturesque features of an earlier period, is a historian’s dream.  To Kenn Reisdorff, it truly is “Last Man’s Chance.”

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